Why Spec Scripts Fail: Backstory Thru Subtext, Part 2

Last time in, Part 1, we discussed how the environment creates behavior that leads to the dialogue a character uses to subtly reveal his or her backstory. I suggested that you rewrite the example scene, without any change in the length, to reveal something about backstory via subtext. If you haven’t tried it yet, may I ask that you stop now, complete the exercise then return here when you have at least given it the good old college try? Go on. Here’s the link again. I’ll wait. Good! Thank you.

photo credit businessesgrow.com

photo credit businessesgrow.com

The use of subtext to reveal part of their backstory creates, for each character, a multi-dimensional life, rich with behavior for the actor to work with. This is an important consideration if you expect to attract both an ‘A’ list actor and an in-demand director to your project.

But I get ahead of myself. The story first has to make it past the overworked, underappreciated, and woefully underpaid, non-union, first-level reader who can easily be bored after the first five pages. Damn, not another Lethal Weapon, Die Hard or Hurt Locker style knock-off. The script read then becomes a “Read With An Attitude.” You never want to bore a reader and have your script read with a pre-conceived opinion on how bad your writing is. In fact, you must grab them by the appropriate body part and not let them up for air until FADE OUT.

Many of us at some time or another have gone through a writer’s “Create The Character Backstory” exercise. This is where the scribe delves into the various significant aspects of everything and everyone in a character’s life up, until the time the story begins. From this exercise, and the subsequent way it affects our writing, we understand why it is essential to “learn” all there is to know about your character’s past. This is what provides depth and reality to bring all great characters to life on the screen.

However, what we can’t be guilty of is spilling out these “facts” before the question occurs to the reader. Create a scenario that raises the question and later answers it at the correct time, through character behavior and dialogue. This helps the reader take the journey along with the characters and live your story vicariously.

Take out your adjustments to the first scene and let’s compare it with both that version and a re-write version below:

INT. DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE – DAY

Typical lawyer’s office decor. Plaques on walls, files
piled on credenza.

Small conference table T-bones an executive desk.

ADRIENNE FULLER (45), Brunette with highlights and
business suite reads 50 Shades of Grey. She’s moved.

A sharp cursory knock then her office door opens.

STAN LAUER (late 20’s) Adonis Knock-Off saunters in.

She hides the book. Grabs an open legal file.

ADRIENNE
Sit.

She closes then tosses the file on her desk.

ADRIENNE
No wiggle room.  It’s conviction or we
get our heads on a platter.  I like mine
where it is.  Thank You.

He fidgets.  He thumbs to the back of a similar file.

STAN
Look at the depositions, witness
interviews.  They make our case —

ADRIENNE
— legal prowess, solid argument, and
skillful cross examination make our case.
You up to it?

STAN
Why would I not be?

Adrienne eyes him for several seconds. Her mouth curls.

ADRIENNE
This is already a grueling exercise.
Could take months.  Long days, late
nights.  Weekend work…

STAN
I’m fully aware of —

ADRIENNE
— it’s a test of your prowess.  If you
can’t go the distance, satisfy the jury,
there goes the case.

She stands…

ADRIENNE
Neither of us can afford that scenario.

STAN
I think you’ll find I can pace myself.

… crosses in front of him.

ADRIENNE
I’d like to believe that.

She bends forward, palms on the table.

ADRIENNE
We both know you have the charm.  Never a
question. However, I need to know if you
have the goods.

STAN
What are you saying?

She straightens up.  Crosses back to her chair.

ADRIENNE
Have you got what it takes to put this
case to bed.

Stan stares at her.  They lock eyes.

ADRIENNE
I had an exploratory meeting with John
earlier this morning.  I feel he’s a good
fit.

She turns away.

ADRIENNE
He’ll make a great co-lead counsel.
Bring him up to speed.  E-mail me after
you guys compare notes.

STAN
Notes?

She turns back.

Another hint of a smile crosses her face.

ADRIENNE
Still Here?

Her eyes undress him as he leaves.

Both scenes are exactly two Final Draft pages. They both have two characters and the same number of words. What is the compelling difference? Behavior. Behavior that influences dialogue.

Adrienne’s behavior, while she reads 50 Shades of Grey and after Stan knocks and enters, speaks volumes about her intent when she brings up her earlier activities with John later in this scene.

All the activity is a direct function of the ‘environment to behavior to dialogue path.’

She’s the ICP, the in-charge person. Every story and every scene must have one of these or else the reader is a wandering nomad in search of a protagonist. I digress. Acting as the obvious ICP, and yet without stating any explicit intent or participating in an incriminating conversation, it is now obvious what her goal is. She wants more from Stan than his skills as a fledgling Assistant DA. She has the hire and fire authority and the trappings to support it. This scene setup indicates to the reader that s/he has a Cougar on the prowl and a writer with some chops.

The subtext conveys the backstory by inviting the reader in. This is far and away better than stating:

ADRIENNE FULLER (45), Brunette with highlights and business suite, a cougar…

when you introduce her at the start of the scene. The subtext conveys the backstory via the environment and her behavior. All the set-up takes place before the first line of dialogue. The simple fact that she hides the book and her subsequent attempt at covering her actions raise the ‘why’ question in the reader’s mind. As the scene unfolds that question is answered.

The text past the opening paragraphs, with the exception of the last line of dialogue, is not changed between the two scenes. Only our perception of intent based on a single character’s change in behavior is different. Adrienne’s backstory is suggested in this second scene’s opening. It is then reinforced by her subsequent activities (behavior).

Use this inference to paint the moving picture behind the reader’s forehead. Their imagination will trump your explanation and/or description every time. What is not said speaks volumes. Let the reader “read between the lines” and become involved in your story. Make them an active participant in your hero’s journey via appropriate use of subtext.

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5 thoughts on “Why Spec Scripts Fail: Backstory Thru Subtext, Part 2

  1. Valko

    HI Stewart, I just happened to stumble upon this article. It’s very insightful. Thank you. However, in addition to showing the power of sub-text, it also explains why writer’s are sometimes skittish about using sub-text (I’l speak for myself). This rewrite sort of lost me. When I reread it I realized why. It was because of the term “50 Shades of Grey.” I didn’t know what that meant. I had to Google it and then reread the scene. Personally, I’m often paranoid that a reader won’t work to understand my script. They won’t Google if they don’t understand. They won’t look up words, etc. Therefore, I sometimes get a little skittish about subtext. I think a very important point is to use sub-text that is clever and revealing but at the same time understandable. It’s a very fine line, especially when you don’t know anything about the reader. I once had a predominate Hollywood writer critique a screenplay of mine. I had the opportunity to question him afterward and was shocked to learn that he didn’t get some of the subtext — subtext that was pretty obvious to me. I’ve also done many table reads of my scripts and have found the same thing, that sometimes people don’t get it. Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps, the subject of understandable subtext, is fuel for another article for you. Again, thanks for this one. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Steve P

    Stewart, thanks for this exercise and articles; they highlight specific things I can do to improve my scenes. One comment–people might not get the 50 Shades of Gray reference, altho they’d certainly get the point that she’s enjoying it (whatever the book is about) and doesn’t want people to know she’s reading it). I would think that writers need to be careful to make sure references to art, history and other cultural events and works are well known to the intended audience. But probably to your point, it’s her behavior–her reaction to the book and what she does with the book–that’s key. If someone wasn’t familiar with the book itself, it’s clear it’s something that’s “forbidden,” at least in the character’s work environment.

    1. Stewart FarquharStewart Farquhar Post author

      Steve:
      Thank You. References to art in any form maybe tricky. In this case it is included strictly for the reader’s enlightenment. Most readers keep up on current trends in literature. The specic reference may or may not make it through the production process. You are correct when you comment that it is all about her behavior and how it sets the tone for the rest of the scene. Thanks again for your comments.
      Stewart

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